Air travel is about to undergo a revolution that will dramatically improve the security and comfort of travellers. It will be brought about in part by extending the use of conventional methods, but mostly by exploiting recent technological advances, especially in the fields of biometrics and IT.
Narita International Airport is littered with checkpoints. First, there is a check on travellers' driving licenses or passports at the airport gate. Next, baggage is checked at the terminal and passports are checked again at the airline counter. This is followed by passenger screening and outbound passport control. Finally, a last check is made by some airlines at the boarding gate.
The trend in recent years has been to combine and simplify these complex procedures by using biometric technologies, automatic check-in machines and electronic media for storing travel data.
Also, since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, airports around the world have had to step up their security screening and improve security systems. They have moved to install high-tech devices that use iris and fingerprint recognition as well as other biometric technologies to prevent terrorists and criminals from boarding aircraft.
The numerous Simplifying Passenger Travel (SPT) projects that are underway across the world are bringing together these two lines of development: the simplification of travel procedures and improvements in security.
The e-check-in project at Narita Airport is the launching pad in Japan for the global SPT drive. Narita carried out e-check-in trials in 2002 using iris and facial profile recognition in conjunction with Japan Airlines. In 2003, Narita carried out advance check-in trials with All Nippon Airways passengers using simplified procedures and facial profile recognition.
Narita also broadened the scope of the trials with Japan Airlines and worked with Incheon International Airport in Korea on international trials. In these trials, priority lanes were set aside for passengers who had pre-registered biometric data, passport information and other personal details.
The pre-registered information provided by these passengers allowed automated verification using biometrics, simplifying the vetting process and streamlining procedures. The time saved could be devoted to more lengthy checks on other passengers, thereby improving security.
In 2004, the Japanese Government looked at the use of IC chips in passports and related airport procedures and set out the parameters for e-passport trials.
IC passports were issued by the Foreign Ministry to diplomatic passport holders for the trials. IC cards (SPT cards), issued by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, provide passenger identification and are used in airline check-in and boarding procedures as well as passport control as a means of testing their application for all passenger procedures at international airports.
This allowed the simplification of all departure proceedings to be tested, including check-in, security check, outbound passport control and boarding.
The e-check-in project, conducted by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, will be continued, but as part of the coordinated e-passport trials by the Cabinet Secretariat and other related ministries.
The SPT drive will undoubtedly gain greater momentum in the years to come as it links up with e-check-in, the Foreign Ministry's e-passport and the Justice Ministry's passport control automation.
The Japanese Government has announced its new IT strategy aimed at creating a society where everyone will feel the benefits of the IT revolution. The strategy vows to promote SPT in Japan for personal identification and procedural automation to facilitate safe and speedy airport procedures by 2008.
The ultimate goal is to identify people wherever they are in the world, and to have on hand and at all times the travel information related to them.
Once biometrics are perfected and made available throughout the world, air travel will enter a new era of safety. The tragedy of September 11 damaged the air transport industry severely and the scars still remain. However, the experience triggered the launch of many new initiatives. We eagerly await further technological developments that will make travel safer and more comfortable.